Mantras and Mountains – Stok Kangri Training

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Views from the West Orange Trail

As we embark on the two week countdown and our final chances for that one last training run, I’ve been thinking lots about mantras.

The last couple of weeks I’ve tried to vary my training routine. We celebrated Memorial Day with what’s now become a talismanic 20 mile hike – the entire West Orange Trail. Years ago we started hiking it in sections starting at each end (see A Walk on the West Orange Trail, West Orange Trail – Starting from the Other End’) but the last few years we’ve simply started at the Apopka trailhead and hiked to Killarney Station. Last year’s erstwhile travel companions, M and S of Everest Base Camp fame, joined us at mile12, with no more incentive than dreaming of treks to come.

By now the West Orange trail has its own rhythm for husband J and me – there’s the area of bizarre churches, the warehouse ruins of the fern industy, the “development” (that is the nastiest bit, involving uphill along a hot busy road surrounded by look alike housing developments), the Buddhist temple, followed by the golf course and memorial gardens (somehow that has always seemed apt to me), and finally, the wooded trek into Winter Garden, Oakland, and Killarney.

I’ve balanced the pleasure of 20 mile hikes with six mile runs in 80 plus degree heat – and literally hundreds of flights of stairs in my office building.

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So what does any of this have to do with mantras, you ask? Last year, on the Everest Base Camp Trek, I was forced to confront one of my greatest fears – the incredibly high swinging bridge. And it wasn’t just one. There were a LOT of them. Our guide told me just to keep my eyes on the prayer flags that lined the steel cables atop the flimsy chicken wire sides of the bridges. I did that – and for whatever reason the phrase “God is in the prayer flags” came to mind. I repeated it, sometimes aloud (with the whistling wind no one could hear) while focusing on the flags and M’s white hiking shirt billowing in the breeze as she strode along in front of me. It got me over a lot of bridges.

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We were on the top one

And on these runs – and many of you know running is not my favorite thing – I’ve kept myself going by finding similar mantras, especially when I’m getting to that point where I’m tired and starting to focus way too much on whether I’ve gone even another tenth of a mile. With a mantra, I can become almost hypnotized by the passing cracks in the pavement, I can slow my breathing down, and those tenths of miles pass by much less knowingly. In fact, yesterday, another runner came toward me from the opposite direction and I was so lost in my present he startled me!

I don’t think these mantras have to be “religious.” Just something that speaks to you and gives an image that you can fall back into in those hard times. As if you’re on a giant fluffy cloud that propels you along effortlessly. I’m picking out my mantras for Stok Kangri.

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20,000 Feet of Fear – Stok Kangri and Other People’s Blogs

IMG_0069We leave for India, more specifically Stok Kangri, in just under 4 weeks and it’s time to stop. Time to stop reading other people’s blogs and trip reviews.

You know you’ve read too many over the top accounts of bad weather, deep snow and almost vertical walls when you find yourself repeatedly googling whether the steepest gradient is really 40 degrees (according to the one and only detailed trekking guide I’ve found) or 75 degrees (according to anecdotal accounts by multiple trekkers at varying levels of inexperience). The next clue you’ve gone too far in internet research is when you start googling all the mountains you’ve previously climbed for comparison purposes to see where they rank in this doubtless highly imaginary world of guessing gradients to try to determine if that will give you a clue as to whether you can do this. And that is followed by a good dose of wondering just how good your training can actually be when you live in Florida and a feeing you better rapidly add even more stairs to the stair climb in the office, not to mention increase the distance of your runs.

I guess fear can be a great motivator – for a bit. But I think I’ve hit the point where reading more about this trek/climb is about to backfire. I need to spend these few last weeks getting my head ready to focus on the present moment and the here and now. That’s what it’s going to take get up that mountain. One foot in front of the other; one at a time.

It’s the opposite of the planning and strategizing and analyzing I have to do in my day job lawyering. Sure, there are the logistics – the gear check, travel arrangements, picking out your GU selections – those are fine. But trying to psych out the mountain beyond a certain point – that’s no good. On a trek, typically the guides will not even tell you what the next day holds until the evening before. I’ve figured out the reason for that. You need to focus on where you are and what you’re doing – not where you’re going to be and whether you can make it.

Right now should be a yoga practice. I need to take the space created on the mat…and let that sense of the present be my guide for these last three weeks. And not read any more first hand versions of “how I survived Stok Kangri.” Namaste.

Virginia is for Adventure – Exploring Richmond

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There were live alligators at The Jefferson until the 1940s

Somewhere between home in Orlando and an expedition to Stock Kangri in India in late June lies Richmond, Virginia. This past Christmas I decided I would only give gifts of experiences. I was tired of tendering never to be worn pieces.of jewelry or clothes. And gift cards just don’t cut it – in fact, I’ve begun to feel the recipient finds it an obligation to spend them! So when it came to my parents, Richmond, Virginia seemed to fit the bill. Not only was it only a couple of hours away from my North Carolina childhood home, but it was also the new home of my niece and her recently acquired husband (new initials to this blog, G and A).

After a too early morning flight to NC, we arrived only to leave shortly thereafter for a drive through the rural countryside just south of the border. We took a detour through Warrenton, a semi decaying but still attractive county seat. Large homes dating back to the 1700s, some done up and some in a state of half repair. Such a contrast to Florida where something from the 20s means the 1920s, not the 1820s.

We had booked rooms at The Jefferson, the denizen of Richmond’s fine hotels. Built in the late 1890s, it embodies the Gilded Age through and through, something that became a theme for the weekend. One of my favorite parts is that they reputedly kept live alligators in the outside fountain and surrounding pool until the 1940s.

We had planned a big dinner that night, to include my side of the family as well as G, A, and A’s parents who lived near Richmond. As restaurants at The Jefferson book quickly I wasn’t surprised when my last minute attempt at a reservation for 9 failed. But I was bowled over when I received a call Thursday to say there had been a cancellation and on Friday night we were ushered into our own private room, with a fireplace no less.

Saturday we toured the Maymont, where A’s father, guide extraordinaire, arranged for us to visit before the masses arrived. It’s located in a 100 acre park, complete with an Italian garden and a huge Japanese garden with a 45 foot man made waterfall careening down toward the James River. The entire property was given to the City of Richmond in the 1920s after the deaths of its owners, Mr. and Mrs. Dooley. His father had started as a hatmaker from Ireland, while she was from an aristocratic southern plantation background.

The house is a frothy extravaganza of the 1890s-1910s. Ornate painted ceilings, silk on walls. The artwork consisted mainly of hand painted copies of famous European masterpieces, including, no less, the Mona Lisa. Clear delineation of male vs female colors. A remarkable bed in the shape of a swan. And oddly enough, as this was a house with no children, representations throughout of mothers with lost infants.

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We also explored the cemetery, resting place of many presidents, including Monroe, whose birthday it happened to be. They have a beautiful view of the James, although as my father put it, it’s really wasted on them.

Monument Boulevard was a grim reminder. I’ve lived outside the true south for long enough that I’m unused to the imagery of confederate leaders marching in grandeur down the main street. I was relieved to find the monument to civil rights champion Maggie Walker on Broad Street near where we had dinner, as well as the statue of sports legend Arthur Ashe who haled from Richmond.

Sunday included a lovely breakfast in the main dining room of Lemaire, the restaurant at The Jefferson.  We followed that with a visit to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It is a beautiful structure, with dramatic new additions and is surrounded by installations including Chuhuly’s “Red Reeds,” strands of red glass waving back and forth in a stream that runs past the museum.

It’s best known for its huge collection of Faberge items, including five eggs.  But there’s also an interesting 20th Century American collection, some beautiful tapestries, and many other rooms we didn’t even have a chance to visit. There was even a special exhibit of horses in Greecian art – perhaps in honor of the Derby?

My parents gave me a miniature “Faberge” egg pendant from the gift shop for my recent birthday. It will be a nice memento of a very nice weekend. Just another detour on the way to the summit.

The Florida Foothills- 10 Mile Clay Loop

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Foothills is a misnomer- it implies a lead up to something large and here in Florida that’s apparently only a 375 foot mountain called Sugarloaf. But the Ten Mike Clay Loop has an outsized reputation around here – it’s rumored to be the site of many a professional athlete’s training regimen and numerous folks have mentioned it to J and me as a good candidate in our never ending quest to find some topography in Central Florida.

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Lots of abandoned footwear

So now that my weekends are slightly freer than they were in the midst of my trilogy of trials and arbitration, last Saturday we ventured out to try the famed loop. Of course, everything we had read urged an early start but for us that translated into arriving at the small parking area just before noon, when the thermometer was just topping 89 degrees.

Due to the eccentricities of google maps we actually ended up driving most of the loop before we finally located the small parking area, just off of Hwy 27. At that time of day, there was only one other car parked and in fact, on the whole trail we only saw one or two very hot looking runners. We didn’t see any other backpackers.

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The clay roads start off with some gradual uphill through cattle grazing land. If you try hard, you can imagine you’re in some spot more exotic than Central Florida.

But at the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of what appear to be very industrial water reclamation or drainage structures. My favorite was at the top of a small hill – large metal pipes and structures by a hollowed out pond of some type and a sign indicating it’s a recharge area for the Florida Aquifer. I guess it was a large scale version of a rain barrel.

You hike first along Five Mile Road. There are a moderate number of cars but they are relatively well behaved. We enjoyed the high school,students who kept stopping in the middle of the road to take photos on top of their car. Eventually you walk past a never ending tree nursery. If you ever wondered where maples, cedars, and the like some from in Central Florida, we found the spot.

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The orange tree of last resort

Most of the land to the side of the road is cordoned off with barbed wire, but thankfully, there’s an old, unmaintained orange grove without such barriers close to mile 5. I say thankfully because although we had plenty of water we’d brought absolutely no food. Who would have thought a purloined orange could taste so good.

At mile 5, just as you leave Five Mile Road to turn onto SchofieldnRoad I decided to switch into my Grade B2 mountaineering boots, bought specially for the Stock Kangri climb. It seemed a bad idea to me to wear them for the first time on summit day. My costume change was just in time for the hardest and hottest part of the hike. It turns out the steepest hills (and some are quite steep) are during the last three miles. Plus, a lot of it is through soft sand, adding an extra challenge. The other part of the experience is that you can’t tell whether you’ve hiked the final hill or not.  There always seemed to be bigger one just over the horizon. Good training for the “fake summit” experience you find on a mountain, just when you think you’ve reached the top.

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The final hill – as seen from the parking area

So, once again we Florida hikers try to morph sand into snow, hot temperatures into below freezing ones, and the rolling hills of what was probably an ancient seabed into mountains formed from earthquakes and volcanos. It’s worked before and I hope it will work again. We leave two months from tomorrow for Stok Kangri.

Wallowing on the Way to Stok Kangri

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I realize that I’ve been silent for longer on this blog than at any other point since I started it in 2014. No posts since January 14.  That’s because FromSwamptoSummit has been wallowing in the mire of arbitrations and trials almost continuously since late January. And there’s still another to go.

It’s semi-terrifying to realize that at some point I have to pull myself up out of the quicksand of work and get myself back into my training regimen.  Working 24/7 is no way to do it. I’ve been able to maintain a modicum of shorter runs, treadmill 5ks, and some yoga, but I can’t even recall the last time I had a good solid stair workout.

This weekend has offered a slight break before the next work-related event gears up, so at least J and I were able to go back to our old faithful, the Cady Way Trail, for a ten-miler. And today is yoga and I’m going to run back home after.

Everyone thinks that the hardest part of climbing a very high mountain is getting up at midnight, braving the frigid cold, and following the faint glow of your headlight as your crampons bite into the snow and ice, and you try to avoid, at all costs, stepping on the rope. But for those of us who can only fund such trips by working pretty intense jobs – the harder part is to keep your focus on that mountaintop experience that lies ahead and not to be diverted by the detours of work stress and the like.

So, if all this sounds like I’m giving myself a pep talk – well, I am.  There are a few major work events between now and our June 23 departure to climb Stok Kangri, an over 20,000 foot mountain in Northern India.  But there are also enough days between now and then to get me to where I need to be. Deep breath. Look at the top of that mountain.

I took the photo below yesterday on the Cady Way Trail. New growth coming out of a crumbled old piece of wood. There’s a metaphor here somewhere.

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A Valley Between the Holiday Summits – Looking toward the New Year

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Mount Elbrus, Russia

I’ve always felt that the week between Christmas and New Year is one of those odd no man’s land spots on the calendar. I nearly always try to take the full week off work; unfortunately this year due to the vagaries of the calendar and my work schedule I’m stuck working a couple of days of what ought to be a glorious week of nothing.

Christmas and New Years do make the close of the year a double peaked mountain.  The first peak comes accompanied by tremendous anticipation; by the time you descend to the pass and face the next peak you start wondering if you’ll make it up. It reminds me of Mt. Elbrus – a long slog up in the wee hours of the morning, hitting a high point – and then a graceful swoop down into the saddle (where I’m convinced I fried my face due to incorrect zinc application). But then you look up – only to see an equally graceful arced curve reaching up toward the summit.

We’ve been in North Carolina this week – not in the mountains but in the Piedmont – itself a spot between the summits of the mountains and the sea.  In fact, North Carolina has been called the valley of humility between the two mountains of conceit – Virginia and South Carolina. Apologies to any folks from there but the old saw fit nicely into my theme.

So as we venture through this no man’s land on our way to the next peak of New Year’s, I’m looking ahead to the summits and swamps of the new year.  June is the beginning of our Stok Kangri adventure. I read this morning that seven soldiers were killed near the Pakistan border today. That caused me to bring out the atlas attached to my parents’ ancient Encyclopedia Brittanica to confirm that Leh is not too close to the border (it’s not – although it is in and around Kashmir). For those who don’t recall – Stok Kangri is to be our first 20,000 foot mountain and husband J and I will be attempting it at what will then be the ripe old ages of 58 (J’s birthday is on day 2 of our travels) and 57.  Challenges for the new year abound; plenty of training yet to be done; and lots of summits out there to conquer.

The Swamp at Thanksgiving – A New Orleans Travelogue

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I’m afraid  this blog has suffered over the last few weeks while I have been trudging up what I call Holiday Hill. See for example,  Holiday Mountain Part 2  I’m just hoping the downhill comes soon.  But in the meantime, here’s a retrospective from November.

This year we traded in our usual Monterey Bay Thanksgiving for an adventure in the swamp – New Orleans, that is. We’ve had an affinity for NOLA ever since we went there on our honeymoon – for no reason other than that I had free tickets on New York Air and they flew to exactly four places, two of which we already lived in. The other two were Detroit and New Orleans. It wasn’t much of a competition.

This time we were rendezvousing with daughter A, boyfriend N, and N’s family including his brother and brother’s girlfriend. A millennial extravaganza. And, of course, daughter S was the impetus for Thanksgiving in NOLA.   She didn’t offer to cook dinner for us! But that was OK – since dining out is the sine qua non of New Orleans.

We arrived bright and early to our AirBnb in the Irish Channel. Up Tchoupotoulos (call it Chop) and along a pothole ridden street. Not an auspicious beginning but all NOLA streets have potholes and the AirBnb was very nice. Four bedrooms, sufficient common areas and a great location two blocks off of Magazine.

Rather than a chronology, here are some highlights.

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Thanksgiving at the Racetrack. I’ll start with the penultimate day itself – Thanksgiving. When S suggested the racetrack, located in Mid-City, would be an appropriate place to while away the hours before our late Thanksgiving dinner, we all looked at her askance.  But it turns out that the racetrack is the place to be. Thanksgiving is the start of the thoroughbred racing season and for years going to the races has been a traditional New Orleans activity. But now it’s spread to what S refers to as the Bywater people, and it’s filled with millenials adorned in all types of race attire. Hats are key. My favorites involved bowls of fruit, a racing scene, and a reindeer head (not just antlers). Top hats were not out of place. Plus I consulted with my friend knowledgeable in all things racing, got some good tips, and doubled my $5 bet. I also loved watching the thoroughbreds prance onto the field, each accompanied by their emotional support pony.

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Dat Dog and  Pelicans Game.  Talk about a cheap night out. Have dinner at Dat Dog where you can get a chefs special hot dog, topped with ingredients as unique as crawfish and whatever else the chef feels like. Pair that with a $15  nosebleed seat ticket to see the Pelicans in the Smoothie King arena.

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A at the Ogden with her new New Orleans hat

The Ogden Museum of Art. In all our trips to NOLA I haven’t made it there before. Affiliated with the University of New Orleans, it boasts a very fine modern art collection, this time featuring modern African American artists. There’s also a fascinating film/performance piece about a New Orleans jazz musician who ended up institutionalized…however, I seemed to be allergic to the carpet and didn’t get to see the whole thing.

Bacchanal and Crescent Park Trail. This is a great twofer.  Bacchanal, located in the Bywater area, is a wine store, a tapas oriented restaurant, and an eclectic music venue (ranging from gypsy to traditional jazz). You sit in a lush back yard surrounded by oak trees (and there were heaters on the cold day we were there). You can work off those calories with a walk along the Crescent Park Trail, which runs along the banks of the Mississippi, landscaped with native plants, and dotted with sculptures.

Frenchmen’s. That’s what S calls it. She doesn’t even add “Street.” Not even sure which venues we ended up at but there was great music and dancing.

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Tipitina’s. Went there on Friday night to hear the Neville Family, who all seem to still be alive and kicking. This is a classic place to hear music in NOLA – I once flew to New Orleans for one night just to hear Rikki Lee Jones there. It’s sort of a free for all, but if you go to the balcony you can usually worm your way to the railing and have a good place to lean.  I love the fact there are nets below to catch anything you might drop!

Running along St. Charles and Magazine and thereabouts.  One of my great pleasures in New Orleans – when it’s not hot and humid – is running through the Garden District.  Yes, the sidewalks are not smooth and it’s a little treacherous, but that’s more than compensated for by the fabulous homes on all sides.  I’ve selected at least five or six that would be adequate for my needs, thank you.

Oysters at Superior Seafood. Believe it or not, we had never before partaken of this traditional New Orleans experience. Superior Seafood is an old, dark wood restaurant with a great bar, behind which world class oyster shuckers ply their trade. The oysters at happy hour are cheap and massive- meaning a full two inches. You’re supposed to swallow them all in one but these were so big I was worried about choking!

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Mid-City walks. This is a very old area of New Orleans, located near Bayou St. John, and we hadn’t spent much time there before. Many of the houses have steep staircases going up to deep porches and are elevated well above ground, massive stucco structures. There is a lot of West Indies style architecture. You walk right along the bayou and City Park is in the middle of it all. It’s a lovely area and not to be missed.

New Orleans is a comfortable place for us – it’s not home, but we’ve been there so much it feels like it. And especially when surrounded by family and good friends. No better way than to sum it up with a picture of a parade   – and a sign for some great New Orleans food.

 

Thanksgiving Reflections on a Blog (and Summits)

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When I started this blog in April 2014, I regarded it as a quick and easy way to update friends, family, and colleagues about husband J’s and my plan to climb Russia’s  Mt. Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe) that summer. I figured the blog would be, at most, a six month phenomenon. Little did I realize – that some three plus years later – I’d still be writing it.

It doesn’t really matter how many people read  it. But the fact any read with interest is more rewarding than if I just scrawled my entry into a spiral notebook and placed it under my bed in the hopes that  someone would possibly discover – or reject – it after I’m dead.

Because the truth is – I always wanted to be a writer. In the second grade I announced with great conviction to my teacher that I wanted to be a poet.  (I was definitely one of those weird, creepy kids.) Mrs. Bell, my second grade teacher, gave me a special lined note pad on which I could memorialize my 4-6 line rhyming poetry, much of which had to do with fish because so many words rhymed with it.

Somehow this all has related to the summit and mountain climbing theme that led to the tag, “steps, stairs and summits.” The reality is that my life isn’t interesting enough to have a steady stream of fascinating travel and climb blogs. I have to spend an inordinate number of hours at a tedious and stress filled occupation to be able to afford just a few weeks of all that each year. And believe me, that is nothing you want to read about on a regular basis.  But somewhere and somehow I’m trying to find that summit high and dopamine filled place each day, whether it be a yoga class, planting the garden, or climbing up and down the fire staircase in my office building.

The last few weeks have been particularly revealing. I have had up to three days a week where nary a bit of training takes place. And all I can think about is how the hell am I going to get up a 20,000 foot mountain at what will then be age 57. But in the midst of this I do get to experience some new world orders that are summits of their own.  Professionally, a career that’s become a 24/7 calling due to the wonders of technology, where social media casts its shadow of surmise over nearly everything.  Personally, the wonders and perils of modern medicine and relatives and friends who grow ever older.  And contrast that to the statement of one of my daughters who proclaimed I couldn’t possibly understand something she said simply because I wasn’t a millennial.

These things aren’t particular to me. A lot of us face these and graver issues this Tranksgiving Day.  There are summits somewhere in all of this; I just need to learn where to find them. And yes, that is a photo of Mt. Everest, taken from Kala Pattar, at the top of this post. There’s plenty to be grateful for.

Back on the Trail – Eyes toward Stok Kangri

It may be seven months off, but when you’re headed towards the ripe old age of 57, and there is a  20,000 foot mountain  called Stok Kangri beckoning you, you have to respond to its call with a training regime. Unfortunately I was just gearing up my program when all hell broke loose at work, which has wreaked havoc with my workout plans, but I’m doing my best.

One place J and I re-visited a couple of weekends ago was our old favorite, the Cady Way Trail. We started to hike it back in 2011 when we were preparing for Kilimanjaro and I’ve been meaning to write about it since day 1 of this blog. In fact, there’s still a partially written post in the drafts folder.

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Over the last six years we’ve watched this urban/suburban trail change – almost a microcosm of the larger world around it. Case in point – there was a little rundown house we always used to look at with a slight sense of incredulity. The windows were cracked, the washer and dryer resided in a strange outdoor closet, and my personal favorite was the trough for feeding the owners’ collection of pit bulls. Six years later – the house was gutted, windows replaced, the outdoor washer and dryer vanished, and landscaping has substituted for  the dog feeding trough.

Cady Way is long and hot and winds between the backs of houses, past a little used golf course (or so it seems), by a high school and culminates in a high pedestrian bridge that passes over one of Orlando’s long wide boulevards, studded on either side with Mexican restaurants and car lots. Oh – at the far end of the trail there is a beautiful little memorial area to remind hikers of a couple of brutal murders that occurred there a few years back.

Aside from the normal prurient interest in getting to see everyone’s backyards abutting the trail – the most interesting place is an odd building that was part of the old Naval Training Center. J and I are convinced it’s a listening center for the military – that location that’s monitoring cell phone traffic. All we know is there are never any people present, there’s a loud hum, there’s an odd asphalt track that he runs around a field for no apparent reason, lots of gas canisters and double barbed wire fences. There’s no telling what it really is – but it certainly lends itself to speculation on what can otherwise be a brutally boring hike. (In face, we’ve never photographed it for fear of being observed!)

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Cady Way has no spectacular sites, no vistas, and only a few spots that even qualify as “natural.” But it’s long (10 plus miles round trip), it’s really hot (and hence meets my theory about stressing your body for high altitude), and the little changes that you see year by year create just enough interest. By now it’s like an old friend that’s giving an “atta girl” to help me get up that mountain.

The Man in the Mist – Mt. Jefferson

We’ve all been there. That one thing that keeps you powering on, even when your legs and your mind say this is a really dumb idea.

For both J and me (and maybe daughter A and her boyfriend N – although i haven’t asked them) the man in the mist on Mt. Jefferson in New Hampshire’s White Mountains did just that.

It had taken us forever to find the trailhead, which seemed to veer off of Google maps onto some narrow dirt road. And once there, the hike up the rocky, fog-laden trail was more uncomfortable than awe inspiring. The one overlook was a bleak landscape of grey fog, with none of the autumnal offerings we were hoping for.

We’d just encountered a miserable family of four – two parents, two kids – one of whom was scampering up the rocky cliffs like an energizer bunny while his older sister wept below and threatened mutiny if forced to go further.

We knew we were near the top, but we were still in the fog, The goal was starting to seem less and less significant. A was making serious queries about the rationale for further climbing.

But just at that point – looking for all the world like an older Jamie from Outlanders – a figure emerged through the mist. In a vaguely European accent he said it was no more than 20 minutes to the summit and he  had already come through the pass from the next mountain, which he summited already that morning. At that point, it was only the fact we’d all collectively seen him that reassured us we weren’t having individual delusions.

So we kept on climbing. It took us another 45, not 20, minutes but we got there. Sometimes it just takes a man in the mist. J claimed he was the spirit of adventure. Something most of us don’t get enough of in our lives.